Many years back when I lived in Upstate New York I worked in a series of department stores–all of which are since defunct or re-branded to reflect national chains. Back then cities prided themselves on their own regional stores touting local retailers as a reason to visit such backwater cities as Rochester, Buffalo and Syracuse. While living upstate I made the acquaintance of a little old lady named Gracie. She was a tiny little thing full of life and spunk. She had a slight over-bite and wire rimmed spectacles that magnified her eyes, especially at the half-moons at the bottom of each lens. Gracie operated the display department sewing machine at the once prestigious, Sibley, Lindsay and Curr Department Store. She often worked late to make tablecloths or sneak-in drag-costumes for ‘staple-gun-queens’ at Halloween–but only for the kids she’d taken a shine to. She was good with her hands despite nagging arthritis. She kept herself trim, prim and proper in the eyes of management while being a covert confident to all the employees.
As the Thanksgiving holiday approaches, ushering in the ensuing “Black Friday” shopping madness, any person who has ever worked in retail display reaches a level of exhaustion unparalleled in the universe. In retail merchandising, you’ve been planning, discussing and executing Christmas decorations since the middle of June, and you’re just about holidayed-out by the day before Thanksgiving.
I purposely ignore holidays, I never much cared for them. That being the case, I tend to be the “odd” person invited to various “orphan” Thanksgiving celebrations. Since I’m the ’gay-relative’ I never kept that much family close-by—especially when I was first out on my own. As they say, “God bless my family, and keep them as far away as possible.”
Working in a display department exhausts a person physically and mentally in the days leading-up to Black Friday—and here little Gracie, nearly fifty years my senior, sensing a lost soul, invited me to join her family for turkey day. She invited me to have Thanksgiving along with her son, daughter-in-law and grandchild. I couldn’t imagine how in the WORLD this tiny little energetic lady had sewn 175 circular tablecloths of various dimensions WITH decorative trim—fluffed dozens of yards of garland—and decorated countless artificial Christmas trees all while planning and executing a Thanksgiving dinner for family and friends!
A few other people were invited on a drop-in basis, mostly people I knew from work, but Gracie warned me about her sister Roslyn. Nothing anyone did ever pleased Roslyn. Food was always too hot, too salty or not salty enough. According to Gracie, Roslyn forever thought the room was too chilly, too stuffy or too drafty. Nothing ever met Roslyn’s impossible expectations. Gracie, while widowed, had at least landed a man. Roslyn on the other hand, had devoted her spinster’s life to a management career in banking, and always dressed the part—right down to her discreet, but obviously real jewels she wore solely to impress people. Gracie’s finicky sister was constantly reminding everyone of the pedigree and authenticity of all her fashions and gems. According to Gracie, Roslyn wore her jewels like she owned the ‘Star of India‘.
Gracie on the other hand, worked hard to earn a meager living, and carried a bicycle chain in her purse when she came or went from her working-class neighborhood—just in case she had to ‘clock‘ somebody in order to insure her own safety. Occasionally, when she worked late at the department store, Gracie (who was nearly seventy) would walk home swinging that bicycle chain above her head like Spartacus entering the Coliseum–but only when she was forced to cross the Court Street Bridge on foot due to missing her bus. The footpaths on the Court Street Bridge could get very creepy late at night back in those days. But life was entirely different for her sister Roslyn. She bought a new car every year and kept residence in an apartment building where she was greeted by a doorman on the “better” side of town in one of the other blighted snow-belt capitals of Upstate New York.
Gracie confided in me she’d never asked a thing from Roslyn other than she behave herself “once-in-a-blue-moon.” During family gatherings her sister would comment on other people‘s weight, or wax-rhapsodic about the Amalfi Coast, knowing full well no one else had been there. Gracie would try to keep the conversation going by saying she’d enjoyed seeing the Amalfi Coast in a photo spread in the National Geographic up until she turned the page and saw bare-breasted natives who were clearly from somewhere other than Italy. If only Roslyn would stop being such a braggart, so annoying, so pretentious, so critical of everyone—that was all Gracie was asking.
But according to Gracie, Roslyn found remarkable ways of delivering an insult while allowing her Freudian slip to show well below the hem—especially after a nip or two of expensive single-malt scotch she sipped from a flask she brought with her so as to insure it‘s quality. Roslyn once told Gracie, that she was “glad” Gracie had married that soldier Roslyn had “lost interest” in. But the way Gracie told it, Gracie saw him first, and Roslyn had tried to steal him away from her right-up until the wedding ceremony. In her own revisionist history, Roslyn attributed her success to not marrying anyone, let alone a blue-collar ex-serviceman, and that allowed her to focus on her career and secure a place in the world as a formidable businesswoman.
But I digress…
…After several decades of on and off “not speaking”—Roslyn was going to ‘grace’ Gracie’s table at Thanksgiving—and I was invited to join them all—but I was given fair-warning that Roslyn took no prisoners—had NO filters—and spoke her mind even if it was hurtful. Warning duly noted.
I was bringing a pecan pie bought the day before from a bakery shop on the other side of town. It was a hefty chore, since ice and sleet had already descended on all of Upstate New York. Meanwhile, they couldn’t have been toastier up in Toronto–the north wind blows over lake Ontario in cold weather gathering raw moisture that created sugar-coated ice-storms in every corner of the ‘snow-belt.‘ No sooner would the weather seemingly end than it would start-up again—never thawing. The early storm that particular Thanksgiving promised to last for forever.
I rang-up Gracie at noon on Thanksgiving day to make sure dinner was still “on” given how slippery it was outside. I lived walking distance from Gracie, but her family and friends were driving-in from Buffalo, Syracuse and Ithaca.
I was told to come over any time midday. Gracie assured me most of her family had arrived safely late the night before—except for Roslyn who’d just called from a rest-stop on Interstate 490 to say she was coming, but only because she was better than halfway there and would otherwise have turned back. I said I’d try to be there by 3pm or thereabouts.
Gracie was vexed with Roslyn’s snide remark about “turning back” and defiantly said she’d start dinner with or without her persnickety sister. Roslyn was already in sour-spirits, dropping the bomb that she hated the thought of driving all that distance for what would undoubtedly be “dry turkey” (even if it was moist) and stuffing that wasn’t nearly as good as what their mother had once made (in spite of it being their mother‘s own recipe).
At about 2:30 in the afternoon I attempted to walk my dog, who while young and chipper couldn’t maneuver well on the ice. The poor thing splayed herself out on the slippery sidewalk like Bambi taking his first steps. The dog couldn’t keep upright on the ice, and neither could I. I clung to walls, branches, hedges and gates until the dog found just the right spot to pee. We then navigated our way back via lampposts, telephone poles and street signs so I could drop the dog off at home and set out for Gracie’s. The wind and freezing-water was gathering in my eyebrows and mustache. It took forever to walk even a few steps gauging each carefully calculated footfall. Nevertheless I hit the ground HARD a couple times landing squarely on my tailbone.
Eventually I made my way to Gracie’s place, clutching the front banister for dear life, I rang the doorbell—but not before taking one last tailspin to the ground. It was then that I saw it: THE car–a duo-tone Cadillac Fleetwood Eldorado perfectly parallel-parked in front of Gracie’s house. Given Gracie’s neighborhood, either a pimp was making holiday rounds, or Roslyn had arrived. When the doorbell didn’t rouse anyone, I knocked at the shaky, tired, peeling green Victorian screen door decorated with a wreath wrapped in white iridescent polyester trim which I recognized from the department store’s table cloths–table cloths, which would premiere for Black Friday tomorrow morning at 10AM when the store opened for business. I admired Gracie’s red and green plaid grosgrain bows and lighted swags flanking her front porch. She didn‘t have money, but she had style, even if she did swipe all her supplies from work.
As previously mentioned, Gracie and I worked all hours of overtime the night before and for weeks on end, prior to the holiday. Here I was exhausted in my early 20’s wondering where-in-the-world this little tiny lady found the time—let alone the energy to decorate her own home.
Gracie opened the door and warned me that “Roslyn is in unusually bad spirits this afternoon.” The moment she arrived, she promptly began drinking scotch, and was working her way around the table telling everyone what she REALLY thought of them. Other people’s families are not my problem, but a home-cooked meal was just fine by me so long as I wasn’t the victim of Roslyn’s scrutiny—and why should I be? I can be charming, and I hadn’t even met the woman yet.
I arrived late due to the ice, and the whole family was already gathered around the table and were just starting to pass food around the table. I‘d missed hand-holding and the Thanksgiving prayer–just as well, as I’m a bit of a pagan at heart.
I took my place at the table following brief introductions, but Roslyn ignored me. I tried not to take offense, but no one likes to be ignored at an introduction. I understand shyness, but I recognize hostility. Roslyn looked at me with a stillness of expression that told me I was beneath contempt, let alone introduction. There was definitely something wrong with that woman–-she unnerved me.
Once Gracie had heaped my plate with turkey and side dishes, I glanced across the table at Roslyn who was still glaring at me eye-level which made me all the more determined to be courteous to a fault.
But there she was with was that stoic, almost ‘other-worldly’ face glaring back at me. Smiling sweetly, I asked Roslyn to pass the gravy as a way to try and engage her interest, at which point, Roslyn summarily slumped over and died face-first into the gravy boat with little tufts of yellow-white hair thirstily absorbing the thick, oily, floured liquid.
There was a beat of time during which no one fully grasped what had just taken place. Had she passed-out drunk…? Or fainted…? Wiping the gravy from her sister’s face, Gracie lifted Roslyn’s head and put a pocket compact-mirror by her sister’s nose and mouth, but she couldn’t tell if the condensation was coming from the gravy or from Roslyn’s breath. She didn’t look to me like she was breathing, and I said so, which threw Gracie into a panic. Cell phones didn’t exist back then and neither did 911. I took it upon myself to ‘dial’ the operator from the kitchen wall phone and told the operator to contact the police emergency paramedic unit and recited the distressed address.
Before the paramedics arrived and declared Roslyn dead on the scene from what later proved to be an aneurysm, it was the human reactions that fascinated me. Gracie was guilt-ridden for having made such a fuss over Roslyn’s numerous faults. But while everything was unfolding, Gracie’s daughter-in-law was removing jewelry from the body. The choker necklace I could understand (at first) but relatives were pulling the jewelry off her fingers and earlobes while other guests continued in a surreal way to pick at their plates. Gracie was nothing short of bewildered. After all, there was a corpse at her holiday table other than the turkey–but ever the gracious host, Gracie, in an indescribable moment of awkwardness offered me left-over’s to take home even as the medical team hoisted her sister’s body onto the gurney.
A dazed Gracie signed a form bound for the coroner‘s office, and I declined accepting the take-home “goody bag.” Just my mind’s-eye memory of Roslyn’s facial expression and her yellow-tinted hair soaking-up gravy through capillary action completely put-off my appetite.
I had done my part by contacting emergency workers, so after an awkward silence I bid my farewell. This had become a family moment where I felt compelled to leave them to sort things out on their own. There were befuddled goodbyes, but no one was even feigning tears. I made a quick but slick exit to allow Gracie and her family to pick over the carcass of their spoiled celebration. Bracing myself against the cold, damp wind, I slipped and slided my way back home to my barren refrigerator in my little apartment. All I had in the house were ketchup, stale bread and 2 frozen pork chops.
I was still a bit shell-shocked, so I let the dog out the back door to pee in the yard on her own, and popped the two frozen pork-chops under the broiler. Once I was settled in, I was suddenly hungry as the devil in spite of what I’d just witnessed. The broiler door jammed so I forced it shut with my foot, catapulting the pork chops into an irretrievable space behind the oven where they were left to thaw and stink-up the apartment for weeks to come.
In defeat, I turned off the oven and ate two slices of stale bread covered in ketchup and then went to bed. I had to go to work the next morning for ‘Black Friday’ to be on hand in the event that any of the displays collapsed under the weight of stampeding Black Friday shoppers.
Poor little Gracie got the next week off with pay due to there being a death in the family—even though she confided in me over the phone that she still hadn’t cried. After an exhaustive search of her sister’s personal belongings, it was determined that Roslyn had expected to live forever, and had never prepared a will. That being the case, everything was left to Gracie as next of kin. It turned out to be a most profitable Thanksgiving for Gracie, who promptly retired in comparative financial comfort for the rest of her days.
– Disassociated Press, 11/25/2013 – Republished from a post on November 24, 2010.